“There’ll be scary ghost stories…”

“It was Christmas Eve.

I begin this way because it is the proper, orthodox, respectable way to begin… The experienced reader knows it was Christmas Eve, without my telling him. It always is Christmas Eve, in a ghost story.”

This is how Jerome K. Jerome introduced his short ghost story collection Told After Supper, released way back in good ol’ 1891. He goes on to describe Christmas eve as the a “great gala night” for ghosts, and state that, “There must be something ghostly in the air of Christmas—something about the close, muggy atmosphere that draws up the ghosts, like the dampness of the summer rains brings out the frogs and snails.”

This surely doesn’t fit with most (if any) common, modern views on Christmas, but it helps explain why singer Andy Williams, in the song “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, croons that there’ll be scary ghost stories. Once upon a time, Christmas ghost stories were a tradition. It’s referenced in the aforementioned intro by Jerome, it’s mentioned by M.R. James in the brief foreword to his collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, and it’s the framing device for the story told in Henry James’ classic The Turn of the Screw,  It’s one of relatively few Christmas traditions from Victorian society that the modern Western world didn’t adapt, borrow or just bring along into the present one way or another.

I have no Christmas ghost stories to share today. And even to a guy who writes the stuff that I write, it does seem like a slightly odd pastime. Then again, I get what Jerome means when he mentions the inherent… well, I won’t say eeriness, but maybe uncanniness of a Christmas night, for those of us who welcome and like to entertain such feelings. A lot of us grow up reading or watching A Christmas Carol, a story that boasts four ghosts as main characters and features a chilling vision of the protagonist’s death at its climax (often presented in a graveyard, under the watchful eye of the reaper-esque Spirit of Christmas Future). And I’ll be here all day talking about how spooky Santa Claus can be if you give him even an ounce of extra thought. (Of course, my views of Santa Claus are probably skewed by a story I heard from my mother when I was very young, about why one of her uncles was missing his thumb, and how Santa so strongly disliked thumb-sucking from children that he carried a sharp hatchet around in his sack that he’d use to express his disapproval…)

So part of me wishes that instead of just watching It’s a Wonderful Life and A Charlie Brown Christmas last night (seriously though, I’ll never outgrow the latter), that my folks and I could have spared a little time to read some Charles Dickens Christmas Ghost Stories, or better yet, come up with a few ghostly tales of our own. Maybe next year.

In the meantime, this gives me as fitting a moment as any to wish any readers a Merry Christmas. And if I don’t get around to it before then, here’s to a Happy New Year.

Continue Reading

Why Write Horror? Because it’s always there…

It’s not much of a stretch to surmise that most horror writers will, at some point, be asked, “Why do you write that stuff?” Depending on how it’s asked it can either be seen as valid or annoying. If asked out of genuine curiosity, it’s the former; when asked with thinly veiled derision, it’s the latter. But I think most horror writers would probably acknowledge, if they’re being honest, that they’ve asked themselves that same question at least once.

In absence of anything else to blog about, I figured I’d do a quick post hashing out why I write the stories I write; partly to answer the question for others who’ve asked me in the past, and partly to help sort out my own thoughts on the subject. For me, there isn’t one simple answer for why I write horror stories. There are a  few different factors that influence my choice of genre. For starters, I write horror because I tend to see it everywhere.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. Horror can’t be found in literally anything unless you have an extraordinarily morbid point of view, which I don’t have. If anything I have an indefatigable optimistic streak that persists in spite of my capacity for cynicism. If I a picture of a box of puppies or read a story about some famous person donating time and/or money to a worthy cause, my mind doesn’t immediately jump to gruesome worst case scenarios, or suspicions of dubious intent. My tendency is to give the world the benefit of the doubt even though I know that history dictates the world doesn’t deserve it from anyone, even the most fortunate of us.

But in all the places where you can make a reasonable argument that horror is present, I see it. Particularly in fiction. It’s not something I have no control over, but if I decide to flip my filter on, the horrifying elements present in damn near anything where it’s feasible become crystal to me. That’s because, some time ago, I developed my own very simple formula for mining horror from a situation. Throw the following elements into a pot and mix as desired: intimacy, personal perspective, tone, and fear. The last is, of course, the most vital ingredient, but everything else is important as well. And when you’re looking at a story through that filter, it’s easy to identify how you could transform the mundane or even the cheerful into the terrifying.

 

Example: Recently I was watching the movie Wreck-it-Ralph with my fam (at the behest of my nieces and nephews… no really, honest), and  the filter came on during the final moments when the bad guy gets his at the end (uh, (spoiler alert, the villain loses. And dies). To summarize as best as possible, the villain ends up out of control of his own body, and inexorably drawn against his will into a blazing pillar of light that incinerates him, all as he begs his unresponsive body to resist. Because of the film’s perspective (which is anti-villain, in the tradition of animated family films, believe it or not), because we obviously never get to know the villain very well, and because of its tone (joyful overall, and celebratory in the final moments since, you know, the good guys win), the horror wouldn’t be evident to anyone except some slightly off-center dude like myself who’s looking for it.

Think of it though. Imagine being pulled against your will–your own body betraying you–toward incineration. You’re screaming, “No!” You’re begging yourself to stop, but someone or something else is pulling your strings. You’re aware the entire time of your fate, but you try as you might, you can’t avert it. And then, in the end, you’re on fire. Flesh turning to cinders, organs roasting, eyes boiling out of your skull. Even if it only lasts a few seconds, you feel it all, and any of us who’ve ever felt any kind of pain know how it can elongate time. Time is, after all, a matter of perception. A second of pain expands in proportion to the level of agony. An instant of your skin burning off your bones is, I imagine, worth at least a minute of whatever makes you happiest. It’s a pain most of us can’t truly imagine, but any sincere attempt to imagine it should be sufficient to give us an idea of why such a moment is the definition of horrific.

The same could be said for a number of scenes from other family films most people wouldn’t come anywhere near thinking of in relation to “horror”; imagine Facilier being literally dragged to hell by spirits hungry for his soul; imagine Scar being torn apart and eaten alive by a team of angry hyenas. The fear is present in each of these scenes, but absent the intimacy, perspective and tone, none of them register as horrific to the ordinary audience member. Which is, of course, by design. These are family films, after all. So let’s take a look at something a little more serious, aimed at a more mature audience, but still presented with the same distance and tone and that makes a horrifying death in a Disney flick   come off as routine.

The Military Channel has a show called Greatest Tank Battles, which I wasn’t aware of until I watched it with my father (a history / WWII enthusiast) one day a few months ago. I don’t recall the precise details of the episode we watched together, but I know they interviewed veterans of the battles recreated through computer simulations to get their takes on what transpired. And those veterans surely have their own personal coping mechanisms for the things they witnessed. I come from a military family and have friends who have served as well, I have no illusions that war is anything less than hell. Yet, for morale purposes, or out of a sense of respect to those who lived it and wouldn’t want to relive it, or to emphasize the patriotism by glorifying the soldiers who served, the horrors of warfare are often downplayed in such television programs.

But for a guy like me, it’s all too easy to latch onto the terror and empathize with the deceased, as much as I can, anyway. When the program presents CGI reenactments of the battles as narrated by the veterans, and shows video-game-reminiscent special effects of tanks burning in the aftermath of battle, I tend to think about the men inside those burning metal vessels. For a lot of people that’s just a story or a quick history lesson; I see a little more. I see men screaming for their lives, cooked alive, dismembered. And contrary to what a lot of people may think, I take zero joy from such imagery. If anything, were my substantial ego also given to pretension and judgement, I’d castigate those who could watch such a program without imagining what it would actually have been like to die a violent death in a tank. The absolute panic, the sense of hopelessness and helplessness, the feeling of being trapped and wondering how in the hell your life had come to this moment before the agony took hold and any conscious wondering surrendered to fire and explosions, the smell of blood, burning metal, the immediacy of the end. Christ. That’s meant to be neither dramatic, shocking or indelicate, folks; that’s real.

And that’s one of the key factors that has influenced what I write, watch and read. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult for me to enjoy stories where death and murder are treated irreverently or humorously. I love the Coen brothers, for instance.  Miller’s Crossing, that’s my shit. But when death is frequently handled recklessly or carelessly in a story, tossed around just for the sake of it being there, that can take me out of the story. I write horror because it’s out there, and while there are plenty of stories unwilling to directly address or explore it, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s present. Beyond that, I also think it’s a worthwhile exploration. But I’ll save the details on that for another entry…

Continue Reading

Confessions of a Fear Junkie: Stephen King’s ‘Night Shift’

Stephen King Night Shift book cover

Stephen King’s first collection of short horror stories might still be his best. Then again, I might be a bit biased, since Night Shift is the first Stephen King book that I read. As a young horror fan I was, of course, already familiar with King’s work through film and television adaptations of his stories. I considered myself a fan of his, but at twelve-years-old I hadn’t actually read any of his books yet.

My folks had a copy of Night Shift sitting on the bookshelf . I had never looked twice at that book until the summer before I entered Junior High. I’m not sure why I had avoided it until then. Given that I was already exceptionally susceptible to nightmares, it’s likely that I feared that reading stories coming straight from King’s brain–as opposed to stories delivered from page to screen by some other party–would be more harrowing than I was ready to endure. That summer, I decided to take the dive.

Instead of starting at the beginning, I decided to read the story “The Boogeyman” first. [Insert joke about me thinking the story would be autobiographical here.] It’s a lean, vicious tale that flattened me like a stampede. At that point in my life, I had read my share of “adult” horror stories, but I wasn’t one of these guys who had read the complete works of Lovecraft and Matheson by the time he was ten. The only story I can recall having a bigger impact on me at a younger age was Robert Bloch’s excellent “Sweets to the Sweet,” but while Bloch’s story–with its lovely, gruesome ending–felt clever and sinister, “The Boogeyman” felt earnestly brutal. Almost malicious. It wasn’t the kind of story that wanted to frighten you because it could, or because it was showing off, or because it was trying to make some sort of commentary on society, or because it was reveling in its own shock value. It simply wanted to frighten you because “screw you, you picked up the book; yes you deserve to be afraid, and I hope you never sleep again.”

I’m a grown-ass-man, and I still have trouble sleeping if the closet door in my bedroom is even slightly open. Coincidence? Maybe not.

boogyeman
Ah dammit… I shouldn’t have kept my gun in there.

Reading “The Bogeyman” wasn’t like going from the kiddie-coaster to riding the latest, fastest steel roller coaster. This felt like leaving the state-of-the-art theme park that has thoroughly safety-tested thrill rides to go to a traveling carnival that’s only open at night and full of dilapidated deathtraps operated by part-time madmen.

I decided to press on, choosing “Children of the Corn” next. The logic being, “I’ve already seen the movie; how much scarier can the original story be?” I could have sworn that about midway into the story, I actually read the sentence “This much scarier,” but upon recently re-reading the story I can’t seem to find that sentence anywhere. Suffice to say that King’s original vision is much grimmer than the 1984 film version, which de-emphasizes the “evil inspired by a perverse incarnation of the Old Testament God” overtones and… well… let’s just say that some of the survivors in the film don’t have the same luck in the short story.

Then there are the quieter stories that all but eschew traditional horror commodities. There are no monsters, ancient demon-gods, knife-wielding serial killers or anything of that ilk in “Night Surf” or “The Woman in the Room.” Both stories helped to reinforce my appreciation for restrained, potentially cathartic horror. The word horror, after all, describes a feeling. A sensation.  Horror, as a genre, can be just as effective when focusing on human emotion as when focusing on carnage and the supernatural.

As with just about any anthology–even the very best–there will be some stories that don’t work for some people. “The Lawnmower Man” is still too weird for my personal tastes, so you can imagine how the 12-year-old me was confounded by the utter (but impressively imaginative) aberrance of the storyline. “Strawberry Spring,” conversely, the defanged by its predictability. The premise to “Trucks” is an interesting experiment, and the final line is a brilliant punch to the gut, but ultimately the idea of vehicles gaining sentience en masse and slaughtering / enslaving everyone in sight never scared or entertained me.

But the stories that do work for me more than make up for minor missteps (he typed alliteratively). King brings a macabre touch to the pulp noir story “The Ledge.” “Quitters, Inc.” is an exemplary lesson in mining horror from the mundane. “Battleground” takes an ostensibly silly premise and injects it with the intensity and energy of a Bourne action scene. “The Mangler” makes better use of the “machinery come to life” idea than “Trucks” does, perhaps because it doesn’t overextend itself; instead of a full-fledged laundry press revolution, we just have one demonic mechanical monstrosity amok. How many more do you need? And “I Am the Doorway” is a gruesome, invasion- of-the-body-horrors tale in which a man’s body is gradually transformed into something between a Stargate and a star-window. It’s exactly as grotesque and horrifying as it sounds.

Stephen King Night Shift book cover
A visual aid. Shame they don’t make many paperback covers like this anymore. 

I’m not not sure if early King was necessarily “better” than present day King, but I do think his work was scarier back then. But again, I might also be looking back on those stories through a nostalgia filter. All I know for sure is that the stories in Night Shift– just like those damn Greasers in “Sometimes They Come Back”– have found a way to defy time and continue haunting me long, long after they first terrorized me.

Continue Reading

Stop Saying That

During the recent flap over Kelly Clarkson’s endorsement of Ron Paul (possibly a racist and homophobic conspiracy theorist; more likely just an unscrupulous opportunist like roughly 99% of politicians), Kelly responded to her detractors on Twitter by mentioning that she supports:

“gay rights, straight rights, women’s rights, men’s rights, white/black/purple/orange rights”

Dear Everybody in the World: Stop saying that shit.

When you throw out imaginary colors that human beings don’t naturally come in, it belies any notion that you’ve given serious thought to the subject of prejudice. I’m not concerned with the rights of purple people, primarily because I’m more concerned with giving them the Heimlich as they’re obviously choking to death. Likewise, an orange person’s rights to remain radioactive and / or continue using cheap ass spray-tans don’t really concern me.

I know the idea behind the statement is to come across as caring about all of God’s skittle-colored children equally, but it just makes you sound ridiculous. So stop saying that. Saying that you support “gay rights, straight rights, women’s rights, men’s rights, white/black/Asian/Latino/etc.” rights works much better and takes 0.5 seconds longer to type.

While we’re here…

Stop prefacing offensive phrases with “I don’t mean to sound racist / sexist / homophobic / xenophobic / but…”

Stop using the term “politcal correctness” in a derogatory fashion when what you’re really taking issue with is tact and civility, you asshole.

Stop referencing / bemoaning the degradation of the First Amendment in regard to things that actually have absolutely nothing to do with the First Amendment.

Stop hating on Tim Tebow. Stop over-praising Tim Tebow. Stop calling “kneeling down in reverence to something” Tebowing. It’s kneeling, aka genuflection, aka something that’s been around for thousands of years already.

Stop believing it when movies say that they are “based on true events.” It’s a meaningless phrase used for marketing purposes. The Devil Inside is based on some dude’s idea for a profitable horror movie. That is all.

I’ll be back with more at a later date, I’m sure. In the meantime… you know… just stop, already.

Continue Reading

Confessions of a Fear Junkie: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

It still sort of surprises me whenever I find out that any of my peers not only did not read the Scary Stories series in their youth, but had never even heard of it. What the hell were you doing with your childhood? Sleeping well without having to fend off ghastly black-and-white illustrations that waited within the darkness of your dreams? Bah! No fun to be had in that…

Among the many things that the Scary Stories series has offered me is a reminder that personal experience is indeed personal. Based on my relationship with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series I would have believed every American child reared in the 80’s would have at least been aware of these books. I can still remember the first time I saw the magnetically morbid original cover of the first volume, and can likewise remember every kid in my elementary school class being instantly fascinated and appalled all at once. Stephen Gammell’s infamously freaky illustrations made you feel anxious about flipping through the pages.

This is from one of the “humorous” stories. Obviously…

Only a relative handful of my classmates actually bought the books, and I wasn’t one of them. I hadn’t even bothered to ask my parents if I could buy it–I already knew how my folks would react to grim content. So instead I was one of the kids who borrowed the books to read during recess or whenever we had some free time towards the end of the school day. I remember the books staying in remarkable condition despite passing through many hands over the course of multiple school years. I would not say that we held the books with any particular reverence so much as we knew how precious they were to the owners. Accidentally rip part of the page to someone’s forgettable Spider-Man comic (“Aw man, this is the one where Spider-Man appears to have been killed by Magma–a villain and event that will surely remain relevant for years to come!”) and they might be mad at you for a day or two.  Fold the corner of one of the appendix pages of someone’s Scary Stories book and they might not speak to you for a semester.

The books are remembered mostly for the remarkable, inexplicably nightmarish original illustrations, but I hold Alvin Schwartz’s retelling of classic and modern ghost-lore dear as well. These were the first books I had ever encountered that told the reader how to tell the story. Being written specifically for recounting around campfires and at sleepovers gives the tales a fairly unique leanness that adds an invisible layer of perturbation to the stories. In “The Big Toe” we are spared any explanation as to why the boy’s parents would nonchalantly decide to cook and eat the giant toe he violently yanked from some unseen creature in a garden. Is the family that poor and desperate for food? Do they regularly forage for monstrous digits?

“Another big toe in the garden? You’d think it was June already.”

We’re not given so much as a sentence addressing these questions. The father just cuts the toe into thirds, the family dines, and then they do the dishes and go to bed. It’s treated as a perfectly normal evening and the setup to impending horror when it could stand on its own as a disturbing story.

My favorite story in the series, “The Drum,” also makes great (and perhaps more deliberate) use of creepy ambiguity and quiet peculiarity. In it, two young sisters living in a small village happen upon a toy drum owned by a gypsy girl. It’s a hell of a drum with animatronic figurines that emerge from it, and the sisters ask the gypsy girl if they could have it. The gypsy girl promises to give it to them only if they misbehave their asses off, which they immediately agree to do, believing that temporarily transforming into a pair of mini-miscreants won’t lead to any dire consequences.

Instead of disciplining her children, the girls’ mother makes a sorrowful plea for the sisters to behave, while warning that if they continue to misbehave, mother and baby brother will have to leave, and the replacement “new mother” will be a thing with “glass eyes and a wooden tail.” Had my mom told me something like that when I was a kid I would have developed some sort of mannerly superpowers. I would have turned into Behavior Boy.

The drum and even the gypsy girl are essentially MacGuffins as the short story briskly progresses to its inevitable conclusion. And again there are multiple questions that get brushed aside. Why do the girls feel they have to actually misbehave instead of just lying to the gypsy girl about how bad they’ve been at home? Do they believe she can somehow see them when they get home? What is the gypsy girl’s motivation? Sport? Something more nefarious? Why does the mother say she does not want to leave but will have to if the girls continue raising hell? Is some outside force compelling her? And “glass eyes and a wooden tail”? What the hell?

I remember “The Drum” in particular as the story that most haunted me due to its unexplained elements. I’m pretty sure it’s the story that first made me conscious of the value of leaving some questions not only unanswered, but unasked. While most of the people I personally know never read these books–much less gleaned early storytelling lessons from them–the internet, as only it can, provides ample evidence that the books have a wealth of admirers. I’m tempted to make the bold, oddly specific declaration that this is the best and most beloved children’s horror anthology series ever. There really isn’t much more for me to say about it, at least for now, so in closing I’ll just leave you with this “scary-for-no-damn-reason” picture from the tale “Oh Susanna” that has absolutely nothing to do with the story.

Sleep well!

Confessions of a Fear Junkie is a series of reflections on the books, stories, movies, images, and lore that shaped my fascination with the Horror genre.

Continue Reading

5 Reasons Why I Love October

I was astonished… astonished I declare… to find out that some folks I know not only have no love for October, but actively dislike this splendid month. Granted, I live in Texas and have lived in south for virtually all of my life, so the coming of colder months has always been a bit of a welcome reprieve from the heat at best and a nice change up at worst. I imagine that if I lived further north the cooler weather would be an harbinger of months of gloom and snow-shoveling and ice-scraping to come. So to my brethren above the Mason Dixon I say… too bad! October is fantastic!

Kidding about the “too bad.” But really, here’s a quick list of reasons why I don’t just enjoy October, but feel invigorated by this time of year.

5. It is the Nexus of Major American Sports

The NFL is in full swing. Baseball enters the postseason (admittedly, the one time a year that I really pay attention to the sport), the NHL regular season starts (when there isn’t a fresh new labor dispute waiting to spoil the sport) and finally, just before October closes out, the NBA season begins. The entire month of October is a long Thanksgiving for sports fans. Feast and be merry, there is no other time like this all year.

4. Autumn is Awesome (From What I Hear)

I might need verification that this is as cool as I think it is…

Reiterating what I mentioned in the opening, I’ve lived in the south for almost my entire life. I’ve lived in Texas since 1994 and before that I spent most of my childhood in Mississippi, which is where I saw my last “real” Autumn. The leaves changed color and fell, the cool-but-not-cold days breezed through and – as a kid – the countdown to Christmas was pretty much on. After a month of being in school, autumn was a welcome sign that the seasons do indeed change, time does indeed progress, and the days of being stuck in the classroom would not in fact last forever.

In my part of Texas, autumn basically doesn’t exist. The weather gets slightly cooler, so highs drop from the upper 90’s to the upper 80’s and dip just below 60 overnight. It’s basically the second coming of spring which probably sounds lovely to a lot of people, but after the soul-sapping hell that is a South Texas summer you’re hoping for a bit more a drop in the temperature. Almost without fail, when the weather gets genuinely cool here it is accompanied by a storm, which dampens the mood. Pun unintended… (or was it?)

*Edit: The above was written before I’d had a chance to spend a few weeks of “mild,” snowy, 15-degree winter in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I have since vowed to never ever ever, under any circumstances, complain about Texas heat again. I didn’t realize I had it so good down here. That is all.

So perhaps I am romanticizing the fall. I haven’t raked leaves since I was a kid, and while the Mississippi autumn at least exists, I’m sure it isn’t comparable to what people deal with up north. But until I actually experience a miserable autumn, I’m going to keep holding on to my nostalgia and presumptions that it is a magical time when nature gives itself a new paint job.

3. Cold Weather Fashion

I like clothes. You know what you don’t get to wear in the summer? Layers. Layers = more clothes. And, in case you missed that first sentence of this section, I like clothes. So you can see how it all relates.

While t-shirt weather is nice and enjoyable and has its perks, I’m a fan of layer season. Cardigans, pull-overs, button downs, zip-ups, light jackets, vests, scarves, gloves, beanies, etc.

This is the time of year I go out at night just so I can sport some new gear.

2. It’s Kind of Romantic, No?

I’ve long been a proponent of the the idea that the summer is the perfect time to meet someone, while the fall / winter is the perfect time to be with someone. Summer holidays are festive celebrations with fireworks and barbecue and beer. Fall and winter holidays are about togetherness, giving gifts and designating some alone time with someone close to you. I solemnly swear a woman’s perfume smells better in the cool weather. I do not know why. I do not suspect that there is a verifiable scientific explanation for this, but I swear it’s the truth.

So yeah, I look forward to this time of year as a reason to get close with a lady-friend. October is ideal for this because the Christmas fever has yet to strike. There’s no reason to rush anywhere or be concerned about things you haven’t done yet. Also, it’s cool enough to make you want to get close, but not so cold it makes you want to sprint inside the nearest heated building before you turn into a block of ice. It’s a perfect time to go downtown, take a walk, go to that restaurant you’ve been meaning to try, catch a play, try out that new cool bar – anything that’s a little different from what you’ve been doing, and do it with someone who you’ve been meaning to spend more time with.

1. Halloween, Of Course

It’s never as fun as it was when you were a kid, but really, whose fault is that? It seemed that joy randomly fell into your lap during Halloween when you were young. You got to wear a costume, consume all kinds of candy and talk to strangers. It was like you were being allowed to playfully misbehave. But it was all set up for you, right? So now you’re left to buy yourself the candy and the costume and you start taking it too seriously, or you forego the whole experience to spare yourself the hassle.

Halloween is what you make it, so why not make it fun? It’s an inherently enjoyable little holiday, and you sort of have to take the scenic route to not enjoy it. All the little “misbehavior” you got to do as a kid still applies as an adult, except now it’s even better because, you know, you’re an adult.  I encourage anyone who likes Halloween but hasn’t really enjoyed it the past few years to go make the most of it. Visit a haunted house (a real one), take a ghost tour, invite friends over to tell ghost stories over dinner, watch some good scary movies, go to some costume parties / bars / clubs and “talk to strangers,” attend a festival, attend an event, watch a Halloween themed theatrical production, go someplace where people really cut loose for Halloween. Treat yourself.

Continue Reading

Confessions of a Fear Junkie – Silent Hill

At the risk of sounding a bit crude, allow me to propose that horror falls within (or roughly around) two general categories: “Oh Crap!” horror, and “What the hell?” horror. The former would be likened to more visceral or “primal” fears, the kind of horror that, when experienced in real life, makes you want to take off running immediately. The latter is more about uneasiness; the nagging sensation that something is wrong. It leaves you puzzled—at least initially—instead of triggering your “fight or flight” response.

Examples:

  • You’re home alone and you hear an angry voice coming from another room and you think, “Oh crap! Somebody broke in, I’ve got to get out of here!”
  • You’re home alone and you hear an odd but unidentifiable noise coming from another room, you wonder, “What the hell was that?” but probably don’t take off running just yet.

Now that I’ve gone through the brief trouble of setting up these two somewhat narrowly defined categories to encapsulate all horror, I’d like to immediately undermine my proposal by stating that the Silent Hill series falls into a third category: “Oh hell, what the crap!” horror.

  • You’re home alone and you hear the unmistakable  sound of your own voice coming from the other room. And you just distinctly heard yourself threatening to kill you. You’re too thoroughly discombobulated to even remember how to form a proper sentence, much less figure out what you should do.
I’d run away, but my mind is too busy eating itself to give my legs instructions…

This is the kind of horror the Silent Hill series has frequently succeeded in delivering since its first installment. People tend to say that Silent Hill is “psychological horror” but that doesn’t quite describe it. There are indeed elements that are designed to worm their way into your brain that would be fine on their own, but most of the psychological horror elements are coupled with brutally effective, tangible horror elements. The air raid siren could be unnerving by itself. That it portends the town’s transformation from the already creepy setting of “foggy, deserted and inescapable town” to “sunless, decaying, rust-infected industrial nightmare” makes it much scarier. If your character’s radio just randomly produced “white noise” it would be alarming. It is, instead, panic-inducing by being an inexact radar that announces the presence of unseen, violently aggressive monsters. How many monsters are waiting / coming for you? What the hell kind of monster is it this time? By the time you find out, you’re already under attack, and almost glad for it since it at least gives you some answers to your questions.

A giant blob of living cancer? *Whew* For a second I thought I’d never find out what wasGAAHHHH!

At the time of the first Silent Hill‘s release, the standard for “survival horror” video gaming had been set by two installments of Resident Evil. While Resident Evil had its share of puzzle-solving and moments where your best (or only) option often was to run, it also put you in control of an armed member of a special task force. Additionally, your primary enemies were zombies who adhered to key archetypical traits of their fictional species (slow-moving and especially susceptible to headshots).  The first enemies you encounter in Silent Hill are knife-wielding monster-children who ambush you after you happen upon an almost unidentifiable corpse crucified to a fence in the “dark world” you ventured into without warning. From there the situations and enemies just get stranger, and instead of an action cop you’re a helpless father whose primary weapons are a kitchen knife and a pipe, because ammo for your handgun is ridiculously scarce and you’re always saving your bullets in case you happen upon a new, even more horrifying creature just ahead.

Silent Hill wasn’t just trying to scare you, it was deliberately trying to screw with your head. As the series went on this trend continued. The game’s most feared and recognized villain, the unfortunately-yet-aptly named Pyramid Head, introduces himself in the second game by standing perfectly still on the other side of a barred wall. He doesn’t move to attack you, doesn’t make a noise, and since you can’t see his face you don’t really know if he’s even awake, much less looking at you. But he does make your aforementioned radio give off its standard “static alert,” lest you get to thinking “maybe he isn’t an evil monster to be terrified of after all.” It isn’t until later encounters that you discover him to be a nigh-invulnerable killing machine who sexually abuses other monsters.

Despite the character’s popularity he doesn’t show up again until the fifth game in the series, where he makes a suitably menacing first appearance.

Later games have suffered (many legitimate) criticisms over gameplay, and the franchise has had  some fan backlash for installments that have changed too much or weren’t innovative enough. The franchise also dumped a poorly plotted, poorly acted (save Sean Bean, God bless that dude) and poorly everything else’d film on the moviegoing populace back in 2006. Nonetheless, even the “misfires” feature some chilling moments. Hell, one of the most maligned titles in the series, Silent Hill 4: The Room, features my favorite premise: A man wakes up one day to find his door inexplicably locked from the inside. And not just ordinarily locked. We’re talking enough chains to make Jacob Marley say it’s a bit excessive…

“Oh hell, what the crap? But I’m out of milk, and I’ve got a hot date tonight, and if I no-show at work one more time I’m fired, and other reasons to go outside.”

His neighbors can’t hear him screaming for help or beating on the door, even when they’re standing in the hallway right on the other side. He can’t open any windows or get anyone to notice him, even trying to use the phone to dial out is futile. It’s somewhat like the Stephen King story 1408 if the evil scary room came to your house. The only way out of his apartment is through a newly formed tunnel in the bathroom which deposits him in random, nightmarish parts of the town of Silent Hill and the surrounding area; full of ghosts and self-immolating cultists and serial killers and whatnot.

Other favorite moments include Silent Hill 3‘s freaky, screaming mannequin room, SH3‘s freaky, bleeding mirror room, SH3‘s freaky, disturbingly humorous haunted mansion and… yeah, pretty much the entirety of SH3. That game alone has earned the series a wealth of good faith that’s far from exhausted.

Continue Reading

Confessions of a Fear Junkie: The Golden Arm

This is, to my recollection, my earliest encounter with a ghost story, antedating my ongoing, abusive, unhealthy love affair with horror.  It’s not the clearest memory, I was only five-years-old, but it’s less opaque than other memories from that age.

“Who’s got my Golden Arm?!”

My kindergarten teacher’s name was Mrs. Nina (I can’t believe I remember that) and one day she decided to introduce the class to a classic tale about a chimeric spirit. I’m unsure if this was just a weird southern or Mississippi thing or if other parts of the country also had kindergarten teachers relate tales of terror to their classes. Granted, she wasn’t reading us Lovecraft or anything quite so dire and potentially scarring, but some part of me still wonders about the objective of letting us hear this story. For that matter, though, the same could be asked about the purpose of telling ghost stories around a campfire, or even writing the stories I write now as an adult. Ultimately, it’s about the thrill of scaring the audience, no matter what age, with a well-crafted creepy yarn. Telling a scary story for its own sake is never as much fun as telling one that successfully terrifies your audience.

Twenty-plus years later, this story still floats around in the back of my mind, so to Mrs. Nina, wherever you may be good madame, mission accomplished. As for the story itself, here is the briefest of synopses:

A man has a friend who has a prosthetic arm made of solid gold.  Said friend dies and the man decides to disinter his buddy, remove the 24-karat limb from the corpse and sell it.  The dead friend takes offense, crawls out of his grave with his one remaining arm, hunts down his buddy and then…

…he murders Dr. Richard Kimble’s wife?

Well, you could Google “Golden Arm” and find a number of variations to the tale.  Some give you a formal rendition making abundant use of the word “thou”; others give you the chitlin’ circuit interpretation.  Its central characters are alternatively friends, brothers, or man and wife.

In most portrayals the returned friend/brother/wife stalks through the thief’s house, crying out repeatedly, “Who’s Got my Golden Arm?!” until finally they happen upon the terrified thief, cowering in his/her bedroom, and then the ghost screams “You’ve Got it!!!”  That’s where the story abruptly ends, but it’s intimated that some grievous demise awaits the one who stole the arm.   I’m sure that the ghost didn’t rise from the grave just to say “You’ve got it!  And I’m very disappointed.  I’m really reconsidering our relationship. I thought we were closer than this.”

Despite the story’s obvious intent, it wasn’t the vengeful spirit’s return from death that disturbed me most. It was more disturbing to me that someone had a golden arm in the first place.  The surrealistic, abominable image of this character still stands in my mind the same as when I first heard the story and imagined his appearance.  This is a greedy, selfish, maniacal, loathsome person.  One with jaundiced, spoiled eyes and skin the color of the ocean at night.

Today I can apply some semblance of logic to the conclusion I’d drawn as a kid. Even setting aside the callousness of getting buried with an appendage that could be donated to your friend, or wife, or charity or something, a golden arm would be terribly heavy and cumbersome. Only a severely troubled mind would dream of grafting such a gaudy, useless artificiality to their body.  In short, you’d have to be crazy to want a golden arm, and not the good, comedic kind of crazy, or the tolerable, fearless-when-it’s-not-necessary kind of crazy, but the seething, malignant kind. That special brand of crazy potent enough to wake the dead.

Continue Reading

Confessions of a Fear Junkie: The Blair Witch Project

I understand why a lot of people hated The Blair Witch Project. When it was first released over a decade ago I didn’t understand the negativity, but it didn’t take long for me to figure it out. And no, I’m not blaming it on “Hype Backlash,” though that was probably a part of it. Truth is, it’s not a very good film. It was, upon initial viewing, a great experience for me, but when you break down actual movie components like plotting, pacing, and acting, it ranges from serviceable to questionable. I own the DVD and the movie itself has very little replay value. I’ve watched the faux-documentary several times but I’ve only watched the movie itself twice in its entirety.

At the time, my best friend and I were practically obsessed with horror movies. Now, we’re longstanding movie fanatics in general, but our horror geekdom in the late 90’s was rapidly approaching critical mass. Mind you, we were two tall, athletic black dudes who did okay with the ladies and didn’t shop at Hot Topic, so we didn’t fit the any visual stereotype for horror movie nerds.

Nonetheless, we were both enamored with horror movies, at a level that probably should have embarrassed us. I spent an inordinate amount of time on the internet reading up on and discussing horror flicks. This, of course, is how I (along with many others) came to know of The Blair Witch Project several months prior to its wide release. I can’t remember where I first heard mention of it, but more than likely it was through Dark Horizons. I do remember reading quotes from people who had attended advanced screenings. One quote in particular stood out to me: “I feel like I just got punched in the stomach.”

Who wouldn’t want to watch a movie that made you feel like this?

There wasn’t ever a time when I believed it was actually a “true story.” Even back when I was still frequently awed by the sheer world-wideness of the web, my search-fu was strong. Maybe not Bruce Lee strong, but at the very least Bruce Li strong. Some simple web navigation uncovered that the story was entirely fictional–no missing film students, no basis for the legend–and I think that might have actually heightened my appreciation for the well-crafted backstory.

The most enduring element of Blair Witch for me is the “fakelore” at its foundation. I find the idea of the supernatural entertaining and intriguing, and I’m a bit of a history fan, so I’m always drawn to ghostly legends. The story of Elly Kedward is quite convincing for what it is. Her exile from the town, the subsequent disappearances of children and other bizarre, unexplained events come off as a plausible embellishment. Obviously untrue, and yet possessing some small level of verisimilitude. Of course a pale hand didn’t actually reach from out from within Tappy East Creek to pull a little girl named Eileen Treacle underwater, but could there have been an actual drowning that inspired that tale?

… It was a lot scarier in my head…

Well… no… thankfully there wasn’t, but the fact that it’s all entirely made up just makes it all the more impressive to me. I still think that much of the best writing and storytelling done for The Blair Witch Project never actually made it to the big screen.

I had told my friend about this movie and linked him to its internet viral marketing and lo and behold, he caught the Blair Witch bug same as me. Nearly every review we read was not merely positive, but almost cautionary. I’ve always wanted to write a story that inspires a critic to say something along the lines of, “So scary I can’t even recommend it.” That was damn near how the Blair Witch reviews read, at least to me. This movie seemed to exhibit the motif of harmful sensation: it was so terrifying that it was actually causing viewers physical distress! That turned out to be mostly or entirely due to motion sickness brought about by the camera constantly moving around so much it has a U-HAUL rewards card. But at the time not many reviewers explicitly stated this, either because they did not realize the true source of their nausea, or because at the time copping to motion sickness from watching a movie was like admitting to a fear of clowns in the pre-Poltergeist or IT era: AKA “Before it Somehow Became ‘Cool’ to Have a Fear of Clowns.'”

Scary Clown Happy Clown
Scary. Jovial. These words are not synonyms. These pictures are not similar. Calm yourself…

Our anticipation for this film had reached a point where there was essentially no way it could have hoped to live up to expectations. Mind you, this was well before the mainstream movie-going public had heard of the film, and possibly before it had been picked up by Artisan for distribution. We had not been lured to see this thanks to a bombardment of television ads promising a rollicking, fearful theme park ride. We had created more than enough pre-release hype for ourselves. So when my boy scored tickets to an advance screening there was much rejoicing and high-fiving.

When we finally saw the movie, well, as I mentioned, it was a memorable experience despite the fact that at around the midpoint of the film I started to wonder, “So when is thing actually supposed to get scary?” The answer came in the last ten minutes or so of the film when the tortuously slow build up finally leads to something, and I will close this Confessions entry with a few things that remain with me from that first viewing, and from the film’s ending.

1. The woman next to me held my hand during the film’s final few minutes. She was blonde, and I remember thinking she was probably in her mid-30’s or so. Reasonably attractive, I think. And a total stranger. I had never seen her before and if I’ve seen her since I did not recognize her. But right around the time that Heather and Mike made it to the house in the woods, she gripped my hand like she’d fall into an abyss if she let go. For my part, I did not pull away. I also did not say anything about it to her because…

2. No one in my theater spoke after the movie was over. Or if anyone did, it was as “quiet as an ant not even thinking of pissing on cotton” as Gene Hackman said in Heist. It was unspeakably eerie, marching out of that theater surrounded by the ponderous silence. When we reached the theater lobby and there were people talking and enjoying themselves like normal human beings in a movie theater should, it was jarring. Almost offensive. For a moment there we were a procession of the walking dead exiting our own mass funeral. How dare anyone in our vicinity hold a conversation, much less laugh and jest with one another?

3. I was surprised to see it was daylight outside, but couldn’t quite understand why. In hindsight, the damn movie dragged so much in the first three-quarters or so that it feels like it’s taking you several hours to slog through it. But at the time… at the time, the daylight seemed out of place, and worse still illusory. Fragile.

Continue Reading